Gendered Differences in Computer Usage

As a new media/web trends/technology enthusiast, I am always seeking out people who I can learn from and am constantly trying to be ahead of the curve! I recently attended a presentation on the scarcity of women in computer science and web development fields. I was intrigued by the research and wanted to know more so I reached out to the presenter, Sarah Toton and asked if she’d participate in an interview (I can’t help my journalistic roots). I was enthralled by her research and felt that others would benefit from hearing what she has to say on the past, present and future differences of computer usage habits between men and women. By seeing a glimpse of what might be around the corner, we may be able to get a head start on developing a recruitment strategy for women in these fields.

So, ladies and gentlemen, meet Sarah Toton…

Sarah Image

Sarah Toton is a PhD Candidate in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts. Her dissertation, “Consuming Futures: Robots in Twentieth Century American Culture,” examines representations of robots in pop-culture ads, film, and television. In addition to completing her degree, Sarah is Managing Editor of the interdisciplinary journal, Southern Spaces.

Why did you start questioning that women and men use the internet differently?

I got my first computer, a Power Macintosh 6100, in 1994. My parents also gave me an Encyclopedia Britannica CD-ROM, and 2 disks of games that included Solitaire and SimCity. I never really played the games, but I used the encyclopedia, Claris Works and the paint program almost daily. In 1997, I got another computer and an Internet connection. I spent hours in AOL chat rooms, on IM and researching historical figures for school projects. By the time I entered the University of Iowa in 1998, I considered myself a fairly standard computer user: I knew enough to get what I needed done. Then, I met my future husband, Micah, a kid from West Virginia majoring in Computer Science. He played computer games constantly, and was good at everything from turn-based strategy to first-person shooter. He’d also launched his first website (a video game review site) at 16 or 17 and cracked his case to install new hardware on a regular basis. (Our first spring break together was spent in his dorm room rebuilding his Dell.)

Meeting Micah, and his friends (mostly other CS or Math majors, all male) made me reconsider my own computer use, and why I and a thousand other women chose English for a major instead of a technology-related field. At first, I assumed the gender divide was related to the disciplinary divide between humanities and “hard sciences” (natural and physical sciences). But, that doesn’t seem to be the case. In the last twenty years, there’s been a sizable increase in the number of women getting bachelor’s degrees in science or engineering, from 39% in 1984-5 to 51% in 2004-5.

In 2003, I began studying online fan cultures and the gendered differences in video game participation. Because I was also working largely in film studies as well, I became interested in fans of television programs and how some groups online become male or female-dominated. From that, I started thinking about how different social groups use the Internet in different ways, and I started to wonder if there were gender-based differences in online literacy, among other differences. From there, I also started wondering what the impact was if there was a gendered difference and whether or not it influenced the future of software development. Was it a problem that everyone I knew in CS was male? Did gender impact the kinds of software and projects coming out of CS programs and the tech sector?

What’s surprised you most about your research?

Confidence is not necessarily linked to competence: Many of the women I’ve talked to informally about their Internet use consider themselves online novices. Despite being masters of the online search, participants in online communities, and sometimes even casual bloggers, they tend to describe themselves as “boring online users.” This identification as a “boring user” seems to be based somewhat on not being an someone who finds and disseminates “cool” links (i.e. cool youtube videos, cool stories, cool tools, etc.) among online communities (like Digg) or friend groups. However, these “boring users” tend to be simply task-driven users: they use online time to accomplish tasks, like finding information on a topic, locating an article, browsing for a consumer item, searching for a place, friend, job, resource, etc. While they’re quite competent at using the internet to achieve these diverse particular goals, they still don’t identify themselves as particularly web savvy users.

What is the reason for gendered difference in computer use and why should we care?

Well, in my case, it was because I had no idea in 1998 that there was a field called computer science. After all, my high school got its first computer lab in 1996, and the typing class had only recently switched away from Underwood typewriters. My own experience is dated now, but it still appears that daily exposure to technology is key to closing the gender gap.
I’m basing that statement partially on a study conducted 10 years ago. Researchers Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher wanted to understand the gender gap in computer science education. They tracked the progress of female students through the CS program at Carnegie Mellon and throughout primary and secondary schools around the U.S. They found the biggest difference between men and women entering university computer science programs was the amount of time male and female students spent with computers when they weren’t doing schoolwork. Male students (even those who didn’t fit the 3 AM Hacker stereotype) spent more time “playing” on and with computers than their female colleagues. Male students’ use of computers as entertainment got them 1) more comfortable with the technology 2) more interested in computers at an earlier age.
Based on the Margolis-Fisher findings, it might be easy to conclude that because more American girls and women are using computers in daily life, there would have been a shift upward in the number of women enrolling in CS programs. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. A November 2008 article in the New York Times shows that the gender gap in Computer Science is widening. In 2001-2, 28 percent of computer science undergraduate degrees went to women. By 2004-5, the number was down to 22 percent. Now, the author reports that women make up less than 10 percent of undergraduates in many CS departments. So, while more women are online, there’s still a major leap between using computers and programming computers that many young women aren’t making.
There are numerous potential reasons for this widening gap. Here are a few:
1)Young women aren’t getting exposure to programming before college. While more women use computers in daily life, their use of computers –and most people’s use regardless of gender — is targeted to specific tasks or entertainment, rather than being based on understanding the technology and it’s use. This type of interaction is akin to operating a television or video game console. That is, just because someone likes to operate a remote or Wii doesn’t set her up for a career in television production or game design.
2) Software design is associated largely with the “nerd” or “geek” stereotype, a figure most 18-year-old girls spend a good part of their teenage lives trying disassociate themselves from. Also, representations of the geek tend to be both highly masculinized and associated with 3 AM lone hacker sessions fuelled by Mt. Dew and Doritos. It’s not exactly an easily marketable identity or lifestyle.
3) Computer Science and computer-related fields aren’t marketing themselves towards women very well. Many of the “cool” new tools, platforms, digital media and resources tend to be interdisciplinary in their scope. That is they combine varying approaches and methodologies by combining computer science with other fields and interests. Changing the definition of software development projects to bring people in through content-development rather than the tool-development may well lead to more diverse involvement.

How will women’s (and men’s) internet use change in the future?

As the online world changes to include a larger diversity of individuals, interests and goals (and there are signs that of this change through popular social-networking sites like Facebook, My Space, and Blogger as well as interest-driven social sites like Wikipedia), more women may enter conventionally male online spaces, or may find and develop their own online communities. Hopefully, this might also lead towards more women choosing to enter computer science or related programs, particularly if programs start to address some of the popular online tools currently available in introductory courses.

This shift seems to be not only happening on certain places online but among the younger generation of online users. There’s a great study that just came out on Digital Youth Research that comprises three years of research on how children learn with digital media. By “hanging out,” “messing around” and “geeking out” kids are developing new forms of expression, new technical and media skills, and they’re exploring interests in highly socially engaging online settings. These friendship-driven and interest-driven activities are not only changing how children, teens and even college-age students learn and communicate, but how they participate in society more generally.

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Thomas Delorme
Written by Thomas Delorme

VP, Digital Products & Strategy

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